You have probably heard by now that, based on a judge’s ruling, coffee vendors in California must include cancer warnings on their products.
This stems from the fact that the roasting of coffee creates a compound known as acrylamide that is classified as a “Group 2A – probable carcinogen” by the International Agency For Research On Cancer (IARC).
For those that may not know, the term carcinogen generally refers to any compound that may increase one’s risk of cancer.
So what does it mean to be a Group 2A carcinogen specifically?
Well, it means that despite potentially limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans, there is enough evidence in animals for the compound to be deemed a “probable carcinogen”.
In other words, as we will see shortly, there is not much strong evidence right now pointing to acrylamide intake increasing cancer risk in humans, but the animal evidence is deemed enough by the IARC to label it a “probable carcinogen”.
What The Heck Is Acrylamide Anyway?
Acrylamide tends to form in certain carbohydrate containing foods that are processed under high heat ( examples to follow) and humans are also exposed to acrylamide through industrial processes as well as cigarette smoke.
According to California law, companies must alert their customers if products being sold contain carcinogens and a Superior Court Judge from Los Angeles decided that the current failure to do so was unacceptable according to state law.
So What Should YOU Do?
The million dollar question…
Should you fear the acrylamide compound found in your daily coffee?
Could it potentially increase YOUR risk of cancer?
That’s the question that I plan to answer here today.
Let’s start by taking a closer look at the potential “problem” foods.
Foods That Contain Acrylamide
Let’s start the discussion of by identifying the fact that brewed coffee is not the only food out there that contributes acrylamide to the average person’s diet.
According to work done by a special task force on acrylamide exposure, the top 5 sources of dietary acrylamide are:
- Bread ( especially heavily toasted)
- Potatoes ( including chips, french fries)
- Cakes ( & cookies too)
Other sources include: prune juice, canned black olives, cocoa and toasted nuts.
One way to decrease the acrylamide content of the foods you prepare at home is to avoid over-cooking them to the point of heavy crisping and browning.
I think it’s safe to say that most of us won’t be particularly shocked by the fact burnt to a crisp French fries were never going to be touted as a super-food.
The same could be said for cakes and cookies.
As I will explain shortly, however, although your acrylamide intake is not something you necessarily want to be bragging about, there is limited evidence that current levels of dietary exposure are truly harmful.
To put things into perspective, it is generally understood that someone who smokes will be exposed to far more acrylamide than the majority of people ever would be from their diet alone.
The Coffee-Cancer Conflict
Today’s article is specifically about coffee and whether or not the judge’s ruling in California will actually help or hurt the health of the general public.
On the one hand, we have acrylamide identified as a probable carcinogenic compound, but on the other we have coffee which is an antioxidant rich beverage that is generally known to be associated with positive health outcomes when consumed in moderate amounts.
So how do we reconcile these two seemingly opposing forces?
Let’s see what the best available research as to say on:
- Dietary Acrylamide and Cancer
I took a look at multiple recent systematic reviews and meta-analysis consisting of the best available observational evidence on the connection between dietary acrylamide consumption and cancer risk.
Here’s the general consensus:
At the current levels of human consumption the available observational data suggests that there is no statistically significant relationship between acrylamide consumption and the majority of the most common human cancers.
For a few types of cancer (particularly kidney and potentially endometrial and ovarian) acrylamide consumption may be linked to a slight increase in risk, but these relationships are far from definitive and still require further exploration.
This conclusion is based on robust work from the following authors within the past 7 years:
- Coffee Intake and Cancer
So the world now knows that coffee contains acrylamide, but we must not be too quick to forget that it also contains potent and healthful antioxidant compounds as well.
Which one wins out in the end?
Let’s see what the best available observational research on risk of multiple cancers says:
- Work by Wang et al in 2016 suggests coffee intake is associated with a reduced risk of a numerous types of cancer (including oral, liver, colon prostate, endometrial, skin) but an increased risk of lung cancer. My understanding is that, in many of the current studies that reviewed the connection between lung cancer and acrylamide intake, smoking may not have been properly accounted for and thus potentially skewed the results.
- Work by Alicandro et al in 2017 suggested that, despite mixed evidence, no strong connection exists in either direction between coffee intake and cancer risk.
- Work by Yu et al in 2011 found that coffee intake was found to be neutral or slightly protective against multiple different types of cancer.
The conclusion from my review is as follows:
Coffee consumption appears to be associated with an overall reduced risk of total cancer.
Yes, you may encounter a few observational studies that show coffee intake increases risk of certain types of cancers, but the general direction of the totality of the best research that I have encountered leans much more towards at worst a neutral or modestly protective effect.
This sentiment seems to be echoed by prominent researchers in the field.
Ultimately, my personal impression is that moderate coffee intake is not likely to play a decisive or overwhelming role in your overall risk for cancer in either direction.
But if it does, it is much more likely to be a positive role.
Let’s also not forget that coffee intake is associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, a disease which can increase one’s risk of co-morbid cancer and other conditions.
Still concerned about acrylamide intake? Cut back on your french fries, potato chips, cakes and cookies.
Those types of foods can obviously still be enjoyed but don’t offer you much nutritionally anyway.
Don’t stop drinking coffee because it will cause cancer.
Don’t start drinking coffee because it will prevent cancer.
If you enjoy coffee moderately ( ~3-4 cups of caffeinated coffee daily), continue to do so alongside a healthy, balanced diet.
If you do not enjoy coffee, continue to do so alongside a healthy, balanced diet.
A healthy, balanced diet and not incidental dietary acrylamide intake is what is far more likely to play a role in modulating your life long risk of cancer and other chronic disease.
Until next time,
Andy De Santis RD MPH